Not my Children
by Kat Wiebe
Sunday morning. Sun’s up. Me too. I’ve always been an early riser, leaving warm bed and bodies behind as I investigate what has begun. Setting moon or rising sun, ocean, meadow, mountain, town—all are newly birthed and unexplored at this time of day.
Even as a girl I would rise and leave the quiet house before the others, only to return to bed and warm blankets before having to get ready for school. It’s a habit that was only interrupted when I became a mother.
Sure, in the early days, I could zip him—or even them—into fleece and down. Tucked inside my parka, or snuggled into sheepskin, they greeted the day with me. The folks at the Bagel Café, which opened at 6:30 am, knew us. Primo and I wondered why the newspaper deliveryman wore a bicycle helmet before there were any other vehicles on the morning streets—the owls were attacking his head, he explained.
But at a certain point life became too fraught with logistics—what with school and work and homework and a nutritional breakfast and lunches to be made—and that early-morning exploration ritual became hit and miss, very much missed.
So today, this gorgeous Sunday in mid June offers early dawn and alpenglow, and I am free to venture out. Just walking to the swimming pool is a sensual feast. Cottonwoods and silverberry exude wild perfume as the rising sun dispels the early morning chill and highlights the billion-year-old rock dramatically up thrust at my periphery. Closer at hand a hummingbird finds food fast at an oleaster thicket, and plain old mallards dabble for breakfast in the muck at the bottom of the stream.
Why am I free to wander this morning, inspired by daybreak and Mary Oliver and rocket fueled by two shots of espresso?
Where are my children, those boys whose birth so transformed my life and made a mother out of me? An attentive, stay-by-their sides, sleep-in-the-den with them, carry-them-everywhere, rarely-be-apart-from-them type of mother?
They are at their other house, the house where they spend fifty percent of their lives, the lives they live with their bio dad and his wife, their other life—the one that doesn’t include me.
Oh, but don’t worry. They’re safe and loved there too. We four adults are mature and appropriate co-parents. We communicate and work together in the best interests of our shared children. We’ve been living this way since the youngest was one, and he’s seven now.
So we’re all used to it.
Right now I know they are warm in their bunks, Primo on top and Secundo on the bottom. I’ve been in their room. It’s sunny and hung with red curtains. Their bookshelf is stuffed full of Sandra Boynton and Curious George and other kid classics. There’s a kite hanging from the ceiling and a growth chart and bins of Lego and more than a few stray socks on the carpet.
When they wake up, they’ll put on their bathrobes, tie the sashes around their waists and trundle downstairs for homemade waffles—while I have all the time in the world to do as I please. No clamouring voices, no requests for help with the knife, no pleas for extra syrup, no sticky fingers on my skin, no spilled milk, no recounting of dreams, telling of bad jokes, or wiping of dirty faces.
I have all the headspace I could possible need. I awoke when I wanted, lay with my warm husband, and nose up, I headed out into an uncharted day. I know many mothers only dream of the free moments I get. They tell me this often. Family life is so busy, parenting—especially in the early years—so demanding that relationships, both with self and partner, suffer.
Just last night Andy and I made love in the living room, in front of a fire, and then we ate cake and I may have even had a scoop of ice cream. Or was it a square of dark chocolate? Did we really pass a sip of tequila from tongue to tongue?
My husband is Handy Andy. He can fix anything. “Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity,” he quotes Eminem, “to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip?”
This morning I am capturing it, seizing the day with both hands, open hearted and vulnerable, present and available. I am right here.
Right here, in the pool, in water as blue as the Mar Carribe—in which I used to swim way back when I was not yet a mother and still roamed the world at will, one morning at a time, accumulating adventures, evolving, becoming the person that I became in order to become the woman that I am.
Sun pierces liquid and the moving medium strobes with prisms as I hang suspended, holding my breath, sobbing underwater.
* * *
It took Andy by surprise, the first time I wept after making love—and the next and the next. “Uh,” he’d wonder. “Is everything all right? I mean––” Being a man, he was naturally concerned about his performance.
He didn’t understand why I’d release like that, my ecstasy turned so suddenly, and thoroughly, to agony. Just part of my process, I told him. Grieving the loss of my boys—grieving the half-life my motherhood has become. He argued that the boys were fine, but my limbic brain tuned into the boys’ absence despite my neo-cortex’s insistence that all was well, that they were safe, and I so happy in love.
My grief when the boys aren’t with me is always there. Deep, in the middle of my brain, in the place where I am a mammal, where it is imperative to touch my pups, to nuzzle and cuddle them, to herd them and teach them and always, always, have my eye on them, there is such a disconnect when they are not here.
One weekend, very early on, I let myself go: I lay on the floor and sobbed while Andy hovered in the doorway watching me.
“I’m supposed to leave you alone, right?”
“Yup, just let me fucking cry. I am sad.”
He tried to understand: “You say it’s so great with us—so what’s wrong, are we not good?” (More checking.)
“I love you, but I miss the boys.” (He showed visible relief.)
“So this is just about that?” (Just?! I thought to myself.)
“It won’t take away the pain,” said my GP when I asked him about Prozac, “but it’ll take it down a notch.” He offered a prescription, if I needed it. I left his office without pharmaceuticals and gauged the pain and noticed it was always there when the boys were not.
Looking back, I am not surprised that Andy was confused. The process of separating when you have kids is complex. The divorce may or may not seem like a good thing, but separating from the children is likely universally tough. Parents—and kids—experience grief, a roller-coaster ride that takes us on an inter-twined, circular, figure-eight pathway that is dynamic, not linear. We all go from protest and denial to despair, detachment and—hopefully—meaning. Ideally, we eventually loop into hope, exploration and new investment. Interestingly, Andy reports that the separations from the boys get harder for him as he bonds with them more deeply over time.
Unmistakably, there is loss. Not only are the children not with me, they are with the person that I have decided I cannot live with.
You’ve got to see the difficulty in that—and the irony. The two adults who cannot live together must let go of their child/ren into the care of each other—to live with, to bond with, to love and adore and depend upon, and to need and miss and to look forward to being with.
This is not easy.
I went to see a spiritual teacher.
“What can I do for you?” the Latin woman in a white turban and robe asked me when I sat down in front of her. I started crying immediately.
“It’s my two kids,” I blubbered. “I have this 30-70 split with their dad that’s becoming 60-40, and moving to 50-50 in the next few years.”
“And?” She raised an eyebrow beneath that imposing turban.
“I’ve accepted that it’s good to be uncoupled. Their dad and I are creating an awesome new way of relating after being unhappy for some years. I’ve got a new man in my life who loves me and loves the boys. It’s all good. But I can’t stand being away from my children.” I cried, not even bothering to wipe away my tears. “It’s just not right to be separated from them, not even for a day!”
“Oh,” she raised a hand to her forehead and pretended to swoon. “All this drama. Weeping and carrying on. When there is nothing to cry about.”
“They’re my children,” I insisted, betting she didn’t have any. “It’s not right for them to be away from me. They’re mine!”
“Yours,” she laughed. Then she became stern. “They are not yours.”
That stopped me in my tracks. Not mine? I was nauseated for nine months twice. I pushed what felt like two bowling balls through my pelvis and out my vagina. I survived sleep-deprivation, post partum depression, and left the work force. Not to mention that I gave up the life I lived for forty years to figure out how to guide two new humans through a world that had changed dramatically since I was a kid. My experience of mothering is right up there with every peak experience I have ever had, including meeting and mating. It has been powerfully joyful, satisfying, pleasurable, and transcendent. I certainly didn’t intend to relinquish being the best damn caregiver they could ever have. Which meant, in my opinion, being with them.
I looked at her, much more pissed off than I expected to feel during a spiritual counseling session.
“Not yours,” she repeated.
I knew what she meant in the theoretical sense of “They come through you but not from you/ And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” But Kahlil Gibran didn’t have kids either. It’s inspirational on one level. In reality my stomach dropped at the thought of my kids away from me half of the time.
“You are caught up in this drama,” she said, more gently now. “Wasting your time with all this crying. Getting in the way of yourself and what you are meant to be doing with your life. You have an opportunity here. Everything is aligned for you. Take it. Don’t mess it up.”
“Get on with this fifty-fifty arrangement. Grow up!”
When I asked my boys—now eight and eleven—how separating families should arrange the mother-father care split, I received interesting answers. Secundo said it should be fifty-fifty. “That’s fair,” he said. Primo looked inwards: “A kid needs his mom more,” he counseled. “Because she knows how to take better care of a young child.”
Is that his experience? Or is that a universal?
I came of age reading Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem. As a teenager I was rabidly against having children because I thought it imperative to kick the old Kinder, Küche, Kirche habit. Yet, when I became a mother, I wanted nothing but to mother my children, and I flouted feminism by giving up my work and devoting myself to them. I know there is chemistry involved, and biology. There’s plenty of research to support mammalian attachment. But I didn’t know any of it at the time. I just know what I felt.
“Does my child need me?” A woman I know is trying to do what is right for her two-year-old. “Or is it that I need her?” She and her ex are currently navigating the waters of parenting after separation.
“Is she fine with her dad fifty-fifty right off the bat? Or is it better for her to be with mom more?”
Good questions. The answers require the heart of Buddha, the wisdom of Solomon and the genius of Einstein.
In the legal system there is no presumption in favour of equal parenting. It is something that couples must negotiate. It is the one piece I was stuck on, and the sole point for which we sought legal guidance: I did not want fifty-fifty to start. The boys were one and four when we separated. Secundo, still a baby, was breastfeeding. Primo was accustomed to my care. We settled on a seventy-thirty arrangement, working toward fifty-fifty by the time Secundo was school age.
Ironically here’s where feminism’s effect is evident: the trend toward participatory fathers is increasing. No longer does a father’s role end at sperm donation. I applaud this change, and at the same time, admit that relinquishing the care of my children to their father—full bore—is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And while I am proud of myself, and believe it’s best for my boys, my dirty little secret is that I’m envious of (and a little angry with) those moms who, for whatever reason, end up with the bigger share of the care and custody of their children.
Last year my boys went with their dad and his wife to attend the memorial of their stepmom’s mother. There they were with the clan that I am not part of: cousins I have not met, uncle, aunt, friends of family—all strangers to me. Their dad’s parents, who used to be my in-laws, were there too, and together they participated in the ritual of mourning and celebration. A milestone in my boys’ lives—for death must be accepted and understood as part of life.
Every family has their ways, their own subtle beliefs and practices. I will not be privy to that deep, often unspoken, modeling. What happens when we die, after we die? Why are we born? How is death celebrated, a life commemorated? This is for my boys alone to discover with that wing of their family.
Are they in good hands? I know they are safe, their primary needs well handled. They will have delicious family dinners and special breakfasts that I will not taste. They are probably neater, tidier, more contained than when they are with me. They will play with their cousins, two girls similar in age, whom I have never met. They may hear prayers and reference to a religious belief that is not mine.
While they were away my "wasband" emailed me a photo of them in button down shirts with fresh haircuts. Bright eyes, ears sticking out like jug-handles and closed-mouth smiles.
I was grateful for the picture, for news of the changes in their lives, for a glimpse into the window of that world. And of course I missed them. Of course I wanted to smell their hair, and touch their cheeks, and hear their white noise—Primo’s repetitive whistling and snippets of things he says to himself, Secundo’s constant questions, and even the sniping and bickering that happens, inevitably, no matter the day or occasion.
The photo evoked in me a longing. It unsettled me. And momentarily I was undone. When they are away, the ache I feel is still intense, their absence palpable.
And I am able to live with this.
I am not the centre of their universe; they are unmistakably whole and my wholeness is separate from theirs, and them, though we have every intersection. We are both attached and discrete, completely sustained within and without each other. I write this for every mother—and father—who shares this loss. For us to progress, evolve, and eventually resolve, we must accept this arrangement.
“They come through us but they are not us”—I can’t say it better than Gibran—yet their passage changes us. For those who are affected, it is difficult to discriminate the magic from the magician, the transformation from the agent, the reaction from the catalyst. Our Herculean task is to allow the meaning to abide, and the peace of mind to exist—even when they’re not with us.
When they’re not with me I want them to be happy and whole, to have joy and peace, to feel loved and connected. I don’t want these qualities to be present only when I am present. I suppose, I wish the same for myself.
When they come back, I look for it. I always do. In that first moment of reconnection, I often see it: something has changed. What did I miss? A new word or concept, an epiphany or fresh development? A turn of phrase, an emerging facet of their psyche, a growth spurt? Did they not get what they need? Or did they? Did he do something better than I can? Did they like his cooking better than mine? I do. Or his Christmas presents? Or possibly, probably, the tidiness of his house?
But in a flash it is absorbed. They are seen and all is known. We pick up right where we left off. The pause button turns to play. This is how I manifest my love for these boys, and how I transform the grief that I feel each and every time they leave.
I miss you so much, Secundo said when he left, curling his fingers around the kiss I placed in his palm. I love you as big as a thousand skies, whispered Primo when we said good-bye. I love you when I’m with you and I love you when I’m not, I promised. And when they returned we slept together, Primo snuggled between my legs, his head on my thigh, Secundo beside me, his feet poking me in the middle of the night. We learned to live with the new rhythm. All of us adjusting and readjusting—mother, father, and the new partners who joined us and took on parenting roles. First they were with me. Then they went to their other house and I was alone with Andy. Then the boys came barreling back into the calm house where Andy’s fourteen-year-old black Lab lay quietly on the sofa all day. Then they rocketed back over to their dad’s where they made Christmas cookies. Primo practiced his letters at that house too. Secundo toddled around their family room too. We began to make our way together—in this way.
I saw the boys unexpectedly yesterday. Day four into our week without them and Andy and I were headed to the hills for an overnight backcountry campout to celebrate our fifth anniversary under a full moon. Waiting at a stoplight I glanced to my right, and there they were: two very familiar faces brightening into radiant smiles as we noticed each other. “Hey!” and “I love you!” and “I was just at a birthday party!” and “Say hi to Snowy!” rebounded between the vehicles and then Andy and I turned left and the boys went straight.
The surprise of seeing them sent pure joy cart-wheeling through my veins. Andy felt it too.
The boys may not be under my roof all the time, but they are under the loving lid of the universe. And that’s how we live together, all the time.